How can trauma impact a relationship?
Trauma survivors with PTSD may have trouble with their close family relationships or friendships. The symptoms of PTSD can cause problems with trust, closeness, communication, and problem solving. These problems may affect the way the survivor acts with others. In turn, the way a loved one responds to him or her affects the trauma survivor. A circular pattern can develop that may sometimes harm relationships.
What your loved one may be feeling
Survivors with PTSD may feel distant from others and feel numb. They may have less interest in social or sexual activities. Because survivors feel irritable, on guard, jumpy, worried, or nervous, they may not be able to relax or be intimate. They may also feel an increased need to protect their loved ones. They may come across as tense or demanding.
The trauma survivor may often have trauma memories or flashbacks. He or she might go to great lengths to avoid such memories. Survivors may avoid any activity that could trigger a memory. If the survivor has trouble sleeping or has nightmares, both the survivor and partner may not be able to get enough rest. This may make sleeping together harder.
Survivors often struggle with intense anger and impulses. In order to suppress angry feelings and actions, they may avoid closeness. They may push away or find fault with loved ones and friends. They may engage in excessive drinking or drug use, which can be an attempt to cope with PTSD symptoms of anxiety, hyper-vigilance, flashbacks, and uncomfortable thoughts. Verbal or physical violence can occur.
In other cases, survivors may depend too much on their partners, family members, and friends. This could also include support persons such as health care providers or therapists.
Dealing with these symptoms can take up a lot of the survivor's attention. He or she may not be able to focus on the partner. It may be hard to listen carefully and make decisions together with someone else. Partners may come to feel that talking together and working as a team is not possible.
Trauma types and relationships
Certain types of "man-made" traumas can have a more severe effect on relationships. These traumas include:
Survivors of man-made traumas often feel a lasting sense of terror, horror, endangerment, and betrayal. These feelings affect how they relate to others. They may feel like they are letting down their guard if they get close to someone else and trust them. This is not to say a survivor never feels a strong bond of love or friendship. However, a close relationship can also feel scary or dangerous to a trauma survivor.
How can you help your loved one?
Relations with others are very important for trauma survivors. Social support is one of the best things to protect against getting PTSD. Relationships can offset feelings of being alone. Relationships may also help the survivor's self-esteem. This may help reduce depression and guilt. A relationship can also give the survivor a way to help someone else. Helping others can reduce feelings of failure or feeling cut off from others. Listen and offer support, understand that the survivor may not want to talk about what happened. Educate yourself on PTSD.
U.S. Department of Veterans Affiars (2014). Partners of Veterans with PTSD: Common Problems. Retrieved from: http://www.ptsd.va.gov/public/family/partners-of-vets.asp
Reannon Kerwood, MA, IMF 73596
Coherence Associates, Inc.